South Dakota Supreme Court Upholds School Funding System

Friday, September 2, 2011

The South Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the constitutionality of the state's system for funding school districts, rejecting the schools' arguments that the current arrangement does not provide enough money to assure students of an adequate education.

In a unanimous ruling, the high court said a lawsuit supported by about two-thirds of the state's school districts raises serious questions about the funding system and shows that some districts struggle to provide adequate facilities and qualified teachers.

"Even so, reasonable doubt exists that the statutory funding mechanisms or level of funding are unconstitutional," Justice Judith Meierhenry wrote for the court.

The 41-page main decision upholds a ruling by Circuit Judge Lori Wilbur of Pierre, who found in 2009 that the system is constitutional because it provides students with an adequate education that prepares them for life after high school. Wilbur has since been appointed to the Supreme Court, but did not take part in Thursday's ruling.

A handful of parents and students are the official plaintiffs in the lawsuit that was filed in 2006, but about 100 of the state's 161 school districts have supported the lawsuit and helped pay legal expenses.

Wilbur also had ruled that while courts could interpret constitutional requirements, they cannot force the Legislature to spend money.

"I am pleased with this opinion because the appropriate place to determine school funding is the Legislature, not the courts," Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in a statement. "I believe we should focus on student achievement, not spending, as the best measure of educational success. That approach is very consistent with the Supreme Court's decision."

Scott Abdallah of Sioux Falls, an attorney who filed the lawsuit, said the Supreme Court decision upheld the system as it existed two years ago, when the dispute focused on whether annual funding increases were sufficient. He said he doubts the system would survive a similar challenge now because state funding for schools has been cut.

The justices also provided a good definition of what the constitution requires in school funding, he said.

"I don't what the plan is going forward here, but I do think the court set a road map for every future challenge," Abdallah said.

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